Before I proceed any further, I must confess that I’m not a big fan of horror genre, although I make it a point to watch such films if A-list stars are attached. Having said that, I’m always in awe of filmmakers who have mastered the art of scaring the daylights out of audiences.
Your heart skips a beat, despite having a premonition that something terribly wrong is going to happen and that an evil spirit might be just around the corner. If that wasn’t enough, dim lights - and at times, a pitch dark scenario - along with an eerie background score prepare you to get scared. So far, so good.
In the middle of all this, I have found myself wondering why are ghosts in such films almost always women. With the possible exception of Anushka starrer Arundhati and Ravi Babu’s Avunu series in the past decade or so, almost every other noteworthy Telugu horror film, right from Prema Katha Chitram to the recent Raju Gari Gadhi 2, has followed the same pattern.
The ghost in the film is a woman - a woman who has been wronged. A woman who has been cheated by her boyfriend. A woman whose death was premature. A woman who has been a victim of sexual harassment or something even worse. A woman…
In Raju Gari Gadhi 2, where Samantha played a ghost, the focus is on an aspiring lawyer Amrutha who becomes the victim of a viral video. The shame keeps haunting her for days altogether. The eyes that follow her in college keep reminding her about how her life is slowly falling apart, and it’s all the more underlined when her father passes away out of shock. She can’t bear the shame any more, and she commits suicide.
At least in this film, Ohmkar went a step ahead to give a proper backstory to the character who, later, returns as a ghost. In most cases, all we are told is that a young girl, from a middle-class family, has been the victim of sexual assault. End of story.
The more you think about how filmmakers have often treated ghosts, it becomes all the more clear that, despite the change in the genre, the approach has pretty much remained the same. There’s hardly a film where the ghost has no sense of purpose and at the beginning of the film, it’s made clear to the viewers that spirits, with unfulfilled desires, can’t find nirvana. Okay, we get it.
But why does every ghost have to be a woman, who was a damsel in distress before her untimely death? Horror films often deal with gender dynamics, and the death of one character triggers the emotional conflict in that story. A case in point, Samantha in Raju Gari Gadhi 2 starts off as a strong character who is determined to be a lawyer; however, when her spirit is broken, she begins to question everything. And her death is treated as the emotional core upon which the whole story is built.
There’s a line in the film where Rudra (Nagarjuna) says, “Death isn’t the only option for every problem in life. You didn’t look for another way to live your life.” Now, this could have been a dialogue straight out of a family drama; however, what makes it different, so to speak, is that this line appears in an interaction between a man and a ghost. It's not just Raju Gari Gadhi 2 alone. Numerous horror films have had instances where, despite living in two different realms, men and (female) ghost form an unlikely alliance to find the real culprit.
Guilt is another common theme that horror films tap into. A lead character’s guilt for not standing up for someone close to him, which might have led to his/her death, or the guilt of turning their back on someone who trusted them, the reasons could be aplenty.
In the film, when the lead character finally understands who the ghost is, s/he is forced to come to terms with their guilt. It either breaks them or makes them even more angry, depending on the character’s moral compass. This trait is exemplified by Amrutha in Raju Gari Gadhi 2, and Rajeev Kanakala in Mahi V Raghav’s Anando Brahma, Rao Ramesh in Anjali starrer Geethanjali, to name a few. And it has pretty much become a common trope in horror films.
One could argue that casting a woman actor as a ghost brings a balance to the story where both the men and women get their due importance; however, it’s also become a stereotype to show the woman as a victim. And the more you see it, you can’t shake off the feeling that this is just a rehash of a regular action drama where instead of a romantic subplot between two characters, we just have a make-do with a revenge drama.
Image: Anushka Shetty in 'Arundhati'
It’s not just Telugu cinema alone that has witnessed this phenomenon in recent times. A similar trend has gripped horror films in Tamil with Raghava Lawrence’s Kanchana series leading the pack. With each new installment of the series, the actor-and-director has pretty much focused on reinventing the flashback sequence where something terribly wrong happens, and that in turn gives him a new reason to make a film.
Even Nayanthara’s acclaimed horror film Maaya was on similar lines where a woman, tortured at a mental asylum, goes on a rampage when her spirit returns to avenge her death. This isn’t about whether it’s the right thing to do or not; however, the peculiar obsession with sticking to the narrative of woman being the ghost and legitimising victimhood has become more mainstream than ever. Perhaps, it’s time to turn the tables and role-reversal, just to add a new twist to this genre.
Maybe we need another Arundhati fighting against Pashupathy. Sometimes, I wonder if filmmakers choose a burning topic from the news such as stalking, sexual harassment, etc and rehash it into a horror film. After all, most of them drive home the message through a social issue that’s inserted in the flashback. The thrills and scares are just a bonus.